Go ahead, get lost… by taking up trail running and becoming a true trail runner! This unique aspect of distance running will expose you to harshest yet most beautiful aspects of the great outdoors your legs can carry you on. Before you step outdoors, it is imperative to get prepared for trail running to ensure you have an enjoyable experience without putting yourself at risk.
If you are new to running and unsure where to begin, please start with our comprehensive guide on how to start running.
What is Trail Running
Trail running, in its simplest definition, is any sort of running that goes off-road. When you think about off-road running on a trail, many conjure up images of high elevation, extreme weather and running miles, surrounded by nothing but nature, and isolated hundreds of miles away from humanity. In reality, trail running varies depending on what type of trail you are running on. It could be a flat gravel trail near where you live or running up the side of a mountain in an Ultra-Marathon.
In both cases you are off-road and experiencing a different terrain than runners who train on concrete roads and sidewalks. The key is to determine what sort of trail running appeals to you. This guide on trail running walks you through the aspects to consider before going all in as a trail runner.
The Benefits of Trail Running
Trail running will literally free your mind, body, and soul as you remove yourself from normal running surfaces, locations, and circumstances. In fact, trail runners often distinguish themselves from other distance runners as a separate lifestyle and sport in itself. Some of the common benefits of trail running are as follows:
Softer Surfaces and Reduced Risk for Certain Injury Types
Running on trails provides a softer surface than the concrete and paved roadways most runners are accustomed to. While this may slow your running pace down as running off-road requires more effort (this is why you won’t see the world record for a 5K being set in a Cross Country race), the softer surfaces can reduce risk for certain running injury types. This is primarily focused on stronger ankles, feet, and more stability in your lower legs, a critical need for all runners as an ankle sprain can really set you back. Additionally, the uneven surfaces of a trail help you to increase your balance, which is imperative for staying upright and in control at any running pace on the trails.
Mental Break by Being Outdoors and Away from Civilization
That “ah” trail runners feel when they hit the trail is like taking a deep breath after recovering from nasal congestion. Getting out onto the trails focuses your mind away from battling cars, stopping your run for stoplights/pedestrians, and the general noise found in more populous areas.
This provides a much needed mental break as you literally remove the “congestion” from your current state. For some, trail running is a perfect New Years Resolution to jump start or restart running habits.
For many, hitting the trails feels like coming “home” in that a return to the outdoors allows thoughts of simpler times away from the internet and masses of people to come flooding in, while engulfing yourself in natural surroundings that appeal and heighten your other senses. One of those senses, is your sense of hearing. Trails tend to be more quiet than cityscapes, even if there is a lot of traffic on the trail, allowing you to take in differing sounds and break the mental monotony we as people are exposed to on a regular basis.
Simply being outdoors and taking this mental break may also provide an increase in concentration, healing, and overall happiness. However, gaining the mental break by trail running you so deeply deserve requires confidence and preparation so that running off-road doesn’t introduce more stress than it is removing. We will discuss risks and preparation for trail running further in this article.
Higher Quality Air for Breathing
Getting away from cars and the lower air quality normally associated with established cities and towns will reduce the amount of carbon monoxide you are breathing and may lower your risk of cardiovascular disease. If you are fortunate enough to run on a trail surrounded by trees, you may be the beneficiary of cleaner air through the cooling and pollutant removal capabilities of trees, but be aware that they may also release compounds and allergens causing a negative effect.
Overall, trees provide a more oxygen rich environment, but if you can’t hit a running trail with a lot of trees, simply getting away from carbon monoxide will give you a better air quality than running in the city… even if you are running on fire trails out in the desert (so long as nothing is on fire!).
Being Part and Respecting Nature While Running
There is something primal about trail running. As you are out in nature, pushing your body up and down the trail, one can’t help but become enthralled with the pure beauty that is around you. This is just as true for running through a desert as the deepest of forest trails. For many trail runners, being out on the trail doesn’t feel like they are a foreigner going where they shouldn’t, but returning “home” to a time when humans shared the harshest of land with the ecosystem and wildlife around them.
In essence, they become part of nature. As you run the trails, it is perfectly acceptable to take a break from running and hike around to enjoy the nature you see, so long as you don’t lose track of time and get lost. We will discuss keeping safe on the running trails later.
A Conservation Mindset
Imagine what it’s like to be far away from humanity seeing all types of biological diversity, combining two great activities of running and adventuring into one, as you crest over a beautiful hill to see a great valley of trees in autumn peak foliage…. Only to stumble across empty plastic bottles and Power Bar wrappers littering the ground around you. Kind of ruins the whole experience doesn’t it? This is where you, as a trail runner, have a responsibility to be good stewards of the environment around you.
When you leave foreign objects on the trails behind you, you are no longer part of nature, but against it. This crosses political parties, religious beliefs (or non-beliefs), and is quite simple. If you are going to run on the trails, you must respect them. This may require joining up with fellow trail runners to clean up the trails (wearing protective gear of course), or working with local enforcement to increase monitoring, notices, and fines for littering and defacing nature.
Strength and Speed Training (With Lots of Hills)
Running on trails is hard work, as you not only go up and down various terrain but move laterally as well. The combination of this effort strengthens your core and hip flexors which can reduce your chance of injury. Beyond injury prevention by working muscles you never knew existed, trail running is a great way to increase your speed as it acts as “hill repeats in disguise” while helping to re-inforce good running form. Not only are you strengthening your lower half of your body, a trail runner will also develop some additional arm and shoulder strength by pumping the arms to move up and around difficult terrain.
Unique Racing Experience and Great Community
There is nothing quite like trail running. Beyond exposing you to the great outdoors, it is a great way to break the monotony that many runners find running on the roads. If you are a competitive runner, you will discover a lot of interesting competitions, distances, and some serious runners. However, this sub community of the greater society is definitely more focused on everyone finishing, so it’s truly the best of both worlds.
The Risks of Trail Running
The risks of trail running often run in converse to the benefits, and need to be carefully considered before hitting the running trail. This is not to state that the risks outweigh the benefits but you need to learn what they are and plan to mitigate them to prevent injury and potential life threatening situations.
Importance of Running with a Group or Buddy System on the Trails
The joy of being surrounded by no one while running on the trails must be balanced by the fact that you are in isolation. While that isolation may provide great solace, one fall or twisted ankle could leave you in a dangerous position. It is recommended that if you take up trail running, don’t do it alone. Run with a group, even if you are faster or slower than the group, you still have a team of people who know your whereabouts, and you them. This includes sharing hydration and food if necessary.
If you can’t team up with a larger group, a buddy system with another trail runner (preferably an experienced trail runner) would be the next best option. In the very least, if you are going to run on a trail alone, bring a communication device (phone, walkie-talkie, etc.) and let others know the exact plan for your run… and stick to that plan. It may also be helpful to identify a few “emergency spots” along the trail where you would go so others can find you. While staying the course while trail running may seem “boring”, it may just save your life.
Increased Risk of Ankle Sprains and Falling
The uneven terrain of running trails raises the risks of ankle sprains and falling. This can happen on forested trails with exposed roots or desert trails with sand and rocks. Trail running is not only a forward movement, but may require lateral movements to move around obstacles and chose the best path forward. These combinations of side to side and forward movements exposes a greater degree of pressure and movement on the lower legs where a sprained ankle can occur. If this happens to you, don’t take it lightly, but properly treat and rest your sprained ankle.
Trail runners are also exposed to a higher risk of falling by misjudging a step, loose gravel or trail edges, and the overall difficulty of maintaining balance on the trails. Where and how you fall will depend, as will the part of the body you injury. No matter your physical shape, never mess around with an injury due to falling, especially if you strike your temple. Get thoroughly checked by a doctor, a must with head injuries, before returning to the trails.
Allergy Sufferers Beware
The great outdoors is great, unless you are in peak allergy season or have direct allergies to something in the environment. This should not stop you from attempting trail running, but requires some forethought to be prepared so your trail running does not become a hateful experience. This is especially critical for those with severe reactions to bee stings and the like. If you are uncertain if you are allergic to bees or other outdoor allergens, get an allergy test. There is nothing shameful about carrying an EpiPen with you for an epinephrine injection. Given the isolation when trail running, having a backup EpiPen may not be a bad investment either.
Per treating allergies with allergy medicine, be careful of the side effects as some studies are finding links to brain damage on top of the range of common side effects. Instead, try natural allergy remedies first before taking allergy medicine. This may include stinging nettle, butterbur, local honey, and sinus draining via Sinol M or saline rinses. Some runners have had success with Neti Pots, but be careful as the heated water used with a Net Pot may unnecessarily expand and contract your sinus cavities resulting in permanent damage.
Dealing with Animals, Bugs, Plants, and Isolation
When running through the great outdoors, it can be easy to believe that you “own the place” when in reality where you are running is home to a vast, beautiful, and potentially dangerous biological diversity. From mountain lions to bears, poison ivy and oak, to a bevy of creepy and menacing insets… its critical to learn about the environment you about to encounter. Pick up a field guide or website for the state / location you plan to run in and consult other trail runners to ensure that you understand the risks.
While most animals are more afraid of us than we are of them, coming across a mother bear protecting its cub is nothing you want to be a part of. It is for this reason that many trail runners carry bear spray and have learned techniques to appear “bigger” if confronted by a mountain lion. Others carry extractor kits for venomous snakes and insects, as well as, differing topical solutions for plant and bug irritations.
A Prepared Mindset
At this point, you may feel like your trail run will not be liberating at all, but rather something out of an Indiana Jones movie. Don’t be dissuaded, as anything can and will happen anywhere, even the safety of your own home street… its being prepared that makes a difference. Don’t be embarrassed if other trail runners give you a hard time about extra gear, because you may end saving them from a serious situation (in which they will feel embarrassed). In essence, it’s easy to get lazy or get a passive attitude, especially once you gain more experience on the trails, but better to follow the “be prepared” motto all the time then find yourself in big trouble the one time you don’t.
Dealing with Isolation
Lastly, prepare for isolation. Just as some from more rural settings have some culture shock when visiting a large city for the first time, you will experience the inverse when surrounded by a lot of space and isolation. Breathtaking as is it, it can also be overwhelming, so mentally prepare yourself by looking forward to taking in the sites and don’t be afraid of what could be lurking around the corner, but rather gain confidence by running in a group on well-marked and regularly traversed trails before taking on new trail running challenges.
There is a great controversy around Lyme disease and the bottom line is that the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi behind Lyme has been around for millions of years and we still don’t fully understand it. There are a range of doctors, from generalists to specialists, who view it as just requiring a round of antibiotics to clear up… and that “chronic Lyme disease” is a myth.
Getting Proper Treatment
If it were a myth, wouldn’t everyone be better after a course of antibiotics? Well, they aren’t… and that can be due to a number of factors. This includes, and is not limited to; how long a person has been infected as Lyme disease may not produce the telling rash and tests have a mixed rate of accuracy, co-infections that come along with a tick bite beyond Lyme disease, and an individual’s natural capability to fight infection.
Doctors aren’t Gods with infinite wisdom, but they do try hard and it is very challenging to properly diagnose a disease. That is why it is critical to seek treatment as soon as you discover a tick bite without being afraid to push a doctor outside of their comfort zone. As all things in medicine, seek out the specialists, which in this case are Lyme Literate Doctors (LLDs) who specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of Lyme Disease.
If you discover a tick bite or start experiencing Lyme like symptoms that feel like flu, fatigue, joint and muscle pain, brain fog, or neurological and emotional issues… don’t wait, it may save your life.
Prevention and Tick Removal
Prevention of Lyme disease is never 100%, but you can lower your chances by wearing insect repellent (especially DEET), covering exposed skin (a challenge for us runners!), avoiding tall brushy areas with deer, and checking yourself, your pets, and children for ticks prior to taking a hot shower and washing and drying your clothes in heat.
If you find a tick, carefully and slowly remove it with tweezers, place it in a closed container, and seek immediate medical attention as you should never assume that you are immune to this terrible disease. If the tick is a carrier of Lyme, time is of the essence as the bacterium spreads throughout your body, especially towards your organs and brain.
The doctor may be able to test the tick specimen in the closed container giving you absolution if you have been exposed to Lyme disease, which in turn speeds up diagnosis and confirms a treatment path (which may be a round of antibiotics just in case the doctor is unsure if you have contracted Lyme).
In the case you are fortunate to not have Lyme (determined by a range of tests hopefully conducted by a Lyme Literate Doctor), you can rest easier knowing that the specimen in question tested negative as well. However, you should still have the doctor test for co-infections as they can be just as, or even more devastating, then Lyme itself.
Watching the Weather/Be Prepared for the Elements
Being out in nature is exactly that, outside. This requires a thoughtful approach and understanding of the elements you will be running in to ensure that you are appropriately dressed, prepared, and know when to avoid hitting the trails for a run. In cooler climates, its best to wear layered clothes with some sort of wind breaker as the top layer. While in warming climates, it is still a good idea to wear a layer and plenty of protection from the sun.
Before you go for your trail run, check the weather forecast and make a determination if the potential for dangerous weather could put you in a scary situation. This includes running on a trail after a strong storm in which the potential for mud and rock slides is greatly increased.
Unlike running through the city, you don’t have the option to run into a gas station to seek shelter when a hail storm or lighting starts to hit (but you might run into a bear’s cave off a trail if you aren’t careful!). In short, learn about the environment and watch the weather you plan on running in, especially if you are traveling to a place and climate you are unfamiliar with.
World’s Deadliest Predator… Another Human
The human being is the apex of predators in our world. Nothing can be more dangerous than another human who means you harm. This is not to scare you away from running, but encourage a “plan for the worst, hope for the best” mentality that keeps you safe on the running trails. One of the most important safety precautions you can take is to run with a group, or in the very least, employ the buddy system to reduce your likelihood of becoming a target. It doesn’t matter if you are the most ripped out muscular male or petite female, the same rules apply when it comes to your personal safety.
Some trail runners carry mace or leverage their bear mace as a protection mechanism against humans. Whether you are a man or woman, taking a personal defense class is a great idea (even for when you are not running). Standing and fighting should be your last resort. Run, scream, and run more if someone means you harm. Never run on a trail alone if possible, and if you do, leave a very detailed plan that you do not deviate from while carrying communication devices that are proven to work on the trail.
Trail Running Gear Essentials
Gearing up for the running trail is a balance of having what you need while not being too encumbered where you can’t run! Having said that, there are some essentials you should have on hand. Running with a group where others can help share the load will make it easier as well. The gear you are wearing while running on the trails will depend on the trail type, location, if you are running with others, and weather.
Trail Running Shoes
When running on trails you needs shoes that up to the task. Where your normal running shoes are more like a car made for driving around town, trail running shoes are more like off road trucks. The key difference is the additional support and protection trail running shoes offer. This may include “side bumpers” to protect the sides of your feet, and lots and lots of traction. Trail running shoes tend to be much heavier than normal running shoes with deep treads to help you properly grip the surface you are running on. Along with your trail running shoes, you may want to consider specially designed trail running socks with Gore-Tex to help wick moisture away and fight cold temperatures.
The type of trail running shoe will vastly depend upon the terrain you are running on. The best place to find and get fitted for trail running shoes is your local running store, as the employees tend to be runners with knowledge of trails and pavement (you can be both a pavement and trail runner!). They will ensure that you not only get the right type of trail shoe for the terrain you will be running on, but also determine your foot type, any pronation, or needs for orthotics.
Dressing for the Trail
Having the right clothing for trail running requires understanding your environment, safety needs, and comfort. Dressing in layers is a must in cold environments, with the layer closest to your body made of fabrics that wick moisture away while the top layer generally has some sort of wind breaking. For the bottom half, don’t be afraid to embrace running tights, or a layer of running pants over your tights in extreme cold. Hats and gloves are imperative when it’s cold, as you lose a great deal of heat through your head and you don’t want to risk frostbite on your fingers.
Heat Still Requires Clothing
For hot environments, it is critical to dress lightly but don’t go shirtless! Rather use sunscreen, ensure that your socks are not cotton but synthetic with wicking capabilities, wear sport sunglasses, and use a visor instead of a hat as hats trap heat in.
Per water on the trail, we will cover hydration and food supply packs in the next section, as adequate water and food is important across cold or hot weather.
Per storage, trail running vests are extremely popular as they are built to help you carry your trail running supplies. Cold weather running vests are usually combined with some sort of wind breaking or warmth technologies.
Hydration and Food Supply
The amount of water and food to carry while training running will largely vary depending on the distance you are running, and if you plan to hike before or after your run. Many runners are prone to drinking all their water and eating all their food while on the run, but it’s acceptable and recommended to have some water and food post run for recovery and in case you get lost on the trails. Planning the right level of food and water should take careful forethought without being afraid to ask fellow trail runners what they carry, and if the group you are running with has a shared food and water store in the vehicles used to get to the trails (which is another benefit of running with a group).
Risks of Over Hydration
Additionally, runners are more likely to suffer from over hydration, also called hyponatremia, than dehydration. This condition is serious as it can start with symptoms such as confusion and nausea and progress all the way to brain swelling and death! In fact, hydrating well before your trail run will likely produce more benefits than attempting to hydrate while running. This is not to state that you should leave your water at home, but try to moderate and learn what the right amount is for you. The color of your urine will give you an indication if you are properly hydrated. Look for clear urine as a sign that you have good hydration levels. These rules apply to both cold and hot weather running.
The Right Food for the Trail
The food you carry during the run should not be the meatloaf you have in the fridge but gels and food bars that are easily accessible and opened, while having some good “replenishing” food post run such as peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Just like water, fueling up with the right food before your run is critical. It is also unlikely that you will need food on shorter runs. As a rule of thumb, it’s still a good idea to carry some food in case you decide to hike afterwards or happen to get lost.
Food and Water Capacity
Per carrying your water and food supply, there are a range of products from belt packs for water bottles and food to camelback water vests that can also house food. Some trail runners also mix and match by having a belt pack for water bottles and food in their running vests.
Bottom line, carry some food and water with you, even if you don’t need it on the run as you will certainly need it if you get lost or decide to safely explore after your run (hint: run with a group and plan for excursions post trail run as nature can really suck you in / make you not want to leave!).
Emergency Supplies and First Aid
Accidents can happen while trail running. You should not live in fear of constant injury but rather be prepared for if and when they occur. The first part of your emergency preparedness is determining where, and how far away from your running trail, to seek medical care in case of a more serious injury or accident. This is a reason why its recommend to run with a group. If an injury happens to you or your running partners, someone can get the injured party to the proper medical care.
Per emergency supplies and first aid that you carry with you along the trail, this may include and is not limited to;
- A first aid kit for general care of scrapes and cuts
- The Extractor for venom and poison removal
- Athletic tape for sprained ankles
- Tweezers and plastic bags or empty pill bottles for storing removed ticks for testing of Lyme disease
- A rescue whistle
- Breakable ice packs
- An EpiPen if you are allergic to bee stings
- A tactical flashlight (for seeing at night or blinding someone in self defense)
- Waterproof storage for emergency supplies
You may not be able to carry all of this in your running vest or belts, but carry as much as you are comfortable with, never leaving behind your rescue whistle, EpiPen if allergic, and some basic first aid supplies… all placed in a waterproof bag.
GPS Watch, Phone, Radio, and Navigation
Communication and navigation is critical when running on the trails. Don’t assume that because you are running in a group that you don’t need to carry communication devices or learn about the trail you are about to run on.
Cell Phones and Communication Plans
From a communication standpoint, bring your cell phone / smartphone and test if it works in the location you will be running in. Having spare batteries for your cell phone is not a bad idea either. If cell phones don’t work, having a ranged walkie-talkie may also be an option. The key is to not only communicate while on the run, but lay out a communication plan with someone before your run so they know what to expect and when. Once your plan is identified, stick to it and be patient.
Per navigation, GPS running watches come with a lot of features that can tell you the distance you have run and some models can also display your route, or communicate with an app or Website on your smart phone such as Garmin, MapMyRun, and Strava. For this reason, a smartphone with cellular access is one of the most critical tools you have since if you get lost, you can always open up an App such as Google Maps and find your way back.
Be forewarned, that mapping software if not foolproof and the most important aspect of navigation is planning and understanding your route before traversing it. This includes knowing the distance of the running trail, which fork or sub trail to follow, and the surrounding area. Writing down and carrying the turns of the trail may also assist with navigation. If you want to go old school, pick up a trail running compass and learn about orienteering.
Running with a group is still the ideal scenario, but even in a group, it’s still possible to get lost… by yourself or the entire group. So ensure that you have a communication and navigation plan in place.
Preparing Your Body for Trail Running
Before your first trail run, you need to get physically prepared for the journey. It’s imperative to establish a strong running base to gain the core muscle strength and stability that comes with running. Beyond the actual running aspects of training, you may need to shift their hydration and nutrition practices.
Taking a Hike Then Run Approach
Trail running training is not an all or nothing approach. While some may want to get a few races or at least complete a 5K before attempting trail running, it is important to remember that trail running is what you make of it. It is completely reasonable, and a great entry point, to starting hiking on trails before you start running. It’s recommended to follow the same safety and preparedness plans of trail running before you hike and start at a shorter distance. It will be easy to convince yourself that because you are not running you can cover more distance and it will be easier, but more distance means more time on the trail and more exposure to the elements.
By hiking first, you will still be building up your “trail” muscles while getting a sense of the terrain, including gaining better balance and lots of side to side movement. This will help prepare for your first trail running steps. Once you are comfortable with hiking, and you should be pretty sore after your first few hikes, mix in a little jogging to see how your body responds before moving fully into trail running. As always, taking on this endeavor with a group will make it easier.
Longer Distances Associated with Trail Running
Trail running is associated with longer distances and even Ultra-Marathons. Rarely will you find a 5K Trail Race, as those who go out to the trails generally want to enjoy them for as long as possible. This does not require you to train for marathons, but establish a strong running base before hitting the trail where you can run at least 5 miles nonstop. This not only prepares your body for the actual distance you will run, but gives you endurance in case you get lost or want to stay out on the trail a little longer. Running with a group is key, as it makes it easier to run longer distances while providing more safety.
Importance of Lateral Movement and Strong Supporting/Core Muscles
Running on a trail is not a straight ahead endeavor, as the terrain will have you moving side to side and taking some unexpected and sudden steps to avoid injury. For this reason, developing strong lateral mobility is critical. Doing so targets a wide range of muscles and ligaments across your body, so when you make a planned or awkward move on the trail your body is able to handle the increased stress or impact.
Strong supporting and core muscles are imperative for trail running as they assist with agility, balance, and running form. A lot of core strengthening can be achieved via body weight exercises, such as planks. However, there is no substitute for an overall weight and cross training plan to augment your distance running.
Proper Hydration and Nutrition
Proper hydration and nutrition is as critical for trail running as training itself. The goes beyond staying feed and hydrated while on the trail and into what you do before you run. From a nutrition standpoint, following a balanced diet while moderating alcohol and sugar intake can be a challenge but one that yields a lot of dividends for having the right type of energy. Hydration before your run is as, or more important, than hydrating while on your trail run. Knowing if you are hydrated requires checking your urine output to see if it is clear.
Trail Running Clubs and Running Events
Joining a trail running club or participating in trail running races/events is a great way to the get the support, and safety, for your trail running aspirations. Whether you are just looking to enjoy the great outdoors with other enthusiasts, or a seasoned runner aiming to compete in Ultra Marathons, there are an abundance of clubs and running events to meet your needs.
Trail running can be an incredible experience, if you are properly prepared. Before you head into the wilderness, make sure you have a strong running base, and the right gear. Running with others can provide safety and add to the fun. Whatever you choose, a safety first mindset is critical to enjoying the trails.